Obama Drone Strike Memo: Has the President Gone Too Far?


A little while back, I wrote an article on PolicyMic discussing the recent court decision not to force the Obama administration to release their legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was an American-born citizen living and working with Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

In that article, I said that I supported the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes, but thought that the legal reasoning for those strikes should be released. Tuesday a 16-page white paper from the Justice Department was obtained by NBC news that outlined that legal reasoning. And it has left me feeling a little queasy.

The paper at one point states that “an operational leader” in Al-Qaeda does not need to have “clear evidence” against him or her “that a specific attack on U.S. person and interests will take place in the immediate future” to be an “imminent threat” that can be targeted an killed. Not only that, but one single “high-ranking” official has the right to determine if a person is an imminent threat (that doesn’t have to be planning anything violent against America at that time, stripping “imminent” of its meaning) and order the killing, without ever having to face a court.

What does it take to get an American citizen targeted for assassination these days? A targeted citizen has to have been recently involved in activities that create a possible threat to America. Sound vague enough to be abused by the official allowed to unilaterally order the killing? Don’t worry: there can’t be any evidence suggesting that the target “renounced or abandoned” those activities. That’s right. You’re guilty (here meaning blown up without warning by a rocket-launching sky-robot) unless proven innocent.

I was a supporter of drones. I still am, to some extent. They are a cheap way for us to quickly kill otherwise inaccessible highly-dangerous enemy leaders and combatants without risking soldiers’ lives. However, the legal justification given by Obama’s lawyers is so broad as to make the whole project sound like something out of a dark thriller novel. Obama, the former civil rights lawyer, is making himself into a conspiracy theorist field day.

I’m not the only one who is made uncomfortable by this paper. Powerful elements in the administration’s own Democratic Party are rallying in a bipartisan effort right now to fight the President on this. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Minority Whip Rep. Senator Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and others, all have expressed consternation at the recent developments. Similarly, 11 senators earlier this week urged President Obama to release the official Justice Department justification for the killings.

As citizens, urge your representatives to join in, or express support if they already have. No matter what your feelings are about the death penalty, use of force, or drones, we deserve greater fairness and transparency from our government; or, failing that, at least court orders for their killings of citizens.